For all the talking we’re doing, for all the well-meaning campaigns, I still believe we are woefully under-trained (or untrained for that matter) in how to effectively and comfortably talk to someone about their mental health, particularly in the workplace.
This was the focus of a workshop I facilitated at the recent, successful Working Stronger conference hosted by the Canadian Mental Health Association – Alberta provincial branch.
The heart of this annual event is to bring together leaders and staff from various sectors and companies to acquire skills and engage in dialogue to increase the psychological health of their workplaces.
I performed my “Funny, You Don’t Look Crazy” about my lived experience with mental illness and my eventual return to work. Then I led an enthusiastic group of individuals in an interactive breakout entitled: “Ready, Set, Recognize: Detecting Mental Illness and How to Help”.
To be quite frank, I was nervous. I had several years employed in the not-for-profit health sector. But my corporate experience has consisted of a two-year stint in a small company (really small – 6 people including me!). 20 years ago.
I was hired as a marketing-assistant-slash-receptionist. Heavy emphasis on the receptionist part. Well, actually, heavy emphasis on the slash part. It was my first job since getting my “sea legs” back after being in the psych ward several times over the previous 5 years. Handling conversations, let alone their phone system, was going to take courage.
I held jobs both when I was struggling and in denial of my mental illnesses and also after when I was learning to manage them. It wasn’t easy for me. I know it wasn’t easy for my bosses or co-workers either.
4 simple steps to make the conversation easy and effective.
Working with well-meaning but misguided managers, and exceptionally talented ones, I’ve learned some strategies about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to addressing mental illness in the workplace.
The result is the framework I created called: O.A.R.S. (Observe, Ask + Actively Listen, Refer and Support). A simple protocol to support an employee or co-worker who may be facing a mental health issue.
The steps of O.A.R.S. are simple, but not necessarily easy. We aren’t used to having these conversations. The only way we’ll get confident is by practice.
One solution for companies is to offer safe learning opportunities and ‘rehearsal’ time for these dialogues in low-stake/no-stake situations. We can be as awkward and unsure as we need to be and gain experiences of success that we can take into real-world scenarios.
I call the framework the Wizard of O.A.R.S. because, well, who doesn’t like a nice play on words? (Actually, I do know several people who don’t. But that’s beside the point.) And because oars bring balance, stability and direction to a boat. Just like oars, people can give support and guidance to those around them who may be facing mental health issues.
This is not a quick fix. The steps don’t work instantaneously. They can in rare cases. But they will gradually, over time, make a difference.
Observe – Changes in behaviour, length present + document
Ask + Actively Listen – Discuss concerns in terms of behaviour, its impact + needs
Ask open-ended questions
Mirror + validate
Be patient + wait
Discuss impact of behavior
Focus on collaborative problem solving + actions
Refer – To resources in the workplace and/or community
Visit my resource page to download a Mental Health Resource Guide for additional tools.
Support – Continue to communicate and encourage; find agreement + set healthy objectives
Click here to download the detailed step by step O.A.R.S. e-guide with links to a fun video of Everyone Loves Raymond using active listening!
Observe, Ask & Actively Listen, Refer and Support: the Do’s & Don’ts
Before you have a conversation with someone at work about their mental health, here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind.
- Set the conversation up for success
- Check in with yourself: is it a good day for YOU to speak to them?
- Check in: is it a good day for THEM?
- Play it out: where, why now, how, what will you say, what might they say, how will you respond?
- Have the facts: make sure the facts you have are correct
- Determine your objective
- Focus on building trust, rapport, safety + open dialogue so they feel free to talk
- Speak to them as early as possible
- Document behavior changes + note impact
- Be clear about what you need from them
- Prepare for own internal emotional reactivity
- Plan + prepare for resistance
- Listen without judgement
- Use an icebreaker
- Avoid talking about impact of behavior
- Make assumptions about the behavior or jump to conclusions
- Minimize or dismiss feelings
- Try to fix or offer advice
Please note: The O.A.R.S. framework is for non-urgent situations. If you feel the individual is at risk of harming themselves or others, immediate care should be sought at the nearest emergency ward. If the individual refuses help and is actively suicidal or at risk for harming others, the police should be called to assist. Please consult your company policies and guidelines.
Do you want to make a positive impact? Have that conversation NOW.
Effectively talking to someone who you think may be struggling with a mental health condition at work can be fiddly and unclear. As a result, managers and supervisors postpone or avoid these conversations, especially if we think the person is going to respond with resistance. Maybe we hope the issue will resolve itself. It almost invariably doesn’t though.
Sometimes individuals dealing with mental health issues aren’t ready to admit it to others or themselves. I certainly wasn’t. It’s not an easy thing to accept. The stigma of mental illness, especially in the workplace, has decreased but it still exists. This can lead people to refuse assistance or refuse to acknowledge the problems directly.
Unfortunately, if left unaddressed, behavior resulting from mental illness may cause difficulties at work and result in discipline, termination or other negative workplace consequences.
As a manager, co-worker or ally you can be proactive and discuss the behavior with the person before it escalates into discipline or termination. The earlier you speak with someone, however uneasy this may be, the higher the chance for optimal outcomes. Early conversations also offer the best opportunity to prevent a condition (if present) from escalating or becoming chronic.
Letting a person who you’re concerned about know you’re willing to listen without judgement, support them and problem solve can open the door for discussion.
This is what Liz, my boss at the marketing company did when I went to her for help. Even before that, she prepped the ground for positive interactions. From the start of my time there, she focused on building a personal rapport with me. One based on trust, respect and active listening. She was frank, firm, fair, kind and honest. When I had difficulties, I knew she was the person I could go to and receive wise counsel and fair treatment.
My experience with Liz gave me confidence that has influenced me to this day. THAT is the kind of impact you can make.
© Victoria Maxwell
Could your workplace benefit from learning how to comfortably address mental health issues? Contact Victoria to discuss the Workplace Mental Health Awareness package: a performance of ‘Funny, You Don’t Look Crazy’ followed by the ‘Ready, Set, Recognize’ workshop. You’ll learn the simple O.A.R.S. protocol to make those awkward conversations easy and effective. Contact me.
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